How are childhood cancers treated?
Treatments are chosen for childhood cancers based mainly on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer. Treatment options may include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and/or other types of treatment. In many cases, more than one of these treatments is used.
There are exceptions, but childhood cancers usually respond well to chemotherapy because they tend to be cancers that grow fast. (Most forms of chemotherapy affect cells that are growing quickly.) Children’s bodies are also generally better able to recover from higher doses of chemotherapy than are adults’ bodies. Using more intensive treatments gives doctors a better chance of treating the cancer effectively, but it can also lead to more short- and long-term side effects. Doctors do their best to balance the need for intensive treatment with the desire to limit side effects as much as possible.
For detailed information on how a certain type of childhood cancer is treated, see our document on that specific type of cancer.
The cancer treatment team
Children with cancer and their families have special needs that can be best met at children’s cancer centers. Treatment of childhood cancer in specialized centers is coordinated by a team of experts who know the differences between adult and childhood cancers, as well as the unique needs of children with cancer and their families. This team usually includes:
- Pediatric oncologists: doctors who specialize in using medicines to treat children with cancer
- Pediatric surgeons: doctors who specialize in performing surgery in children
- Radiation oncologists: doctors who specialize in using radiation to treat cancer
- Pediatric oncology nurses: nurses who specialize in caring for children with cancer
- Nurse practitioners and physician assistants: nurses and other professionals who are specially trained and licensed to practice medicine alongside doctors
Childhood cancer treatment involves many professionals other than nurses and doctors, too. Children’s cancer centers have psychologists, social workers, child life specialists, nutritionists, rehabilitation and physical therapists, and educators who can support and care for the entire family.
Getting the best treatment possible
Treating children is different from treating adults. It is best for a child to get treatment at a hospital or treatment center where many children have been treated for cancer. Today, most children with cancer are treated at specialized centers designed for children. These children’s cancer centers are often members of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). All of these centers are linked to a university and most are connected with a children’s hospital. Going to a hospital that specializes in treating childhood cancer helps ensure that a child gets the best available cancer treatment.
These centers offer the most up-to-date-treatment by conducting clinical trials (studies of promising new therapies). If your child qualifies for a clinical trial, you will have to decide whether or not to enter (enroll) the child into it. Older children, who can understand more, usually must also agree to take part in the clinical trial before the parents’ consent is accepted.
Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the- art cancer care for your child. They may be the only way to get access to certain treatments. They are also the only way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they might not be right for every child. Talk to your child’s cancer care team to learn about possible clinical trials for your child, and ask about the pros and cons of enrolling in one of them.
Last Medical Review: 09/20/2012
Last Revised: 01/18/2013